Top 10 Obstacle Course Training Tips

*This is a guest post by Joe Vennare of

How do you feed your need for competition? Sure, working out is great; it helps us look better and feel more energized. But, what do you do when working out is just doesn’t cut it.

Maybe you have a 5K under your belt. Or, you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and run a half-marathon or triathlon. If you’re not crazy about cardio CrossFit may have satisfied your craving for competition. After searching, you’ll find your fix and settle into a training program. If all goes according to plan you’ll make improvements and peak in time for the race or contest. Then, just like that, it’s all over.

If you’re anything like me the end of a race means it’s time to ask; what’s next? What goal can I set to keep me focused and motivated? If you’re bored with the tired road races and looking for a new challenge, then it might be time to take on an obstacle course race.

What’s an Obstacle Race?

Obstacle races like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race can best be described as adventure racing meets military obstacle course. Have you ever gone for a trail run? Well it’s kind of like that; on the side of a mountain. Only there’s more to worry about than tree roots and falling rocks. Think barrier walls, monkey bars, rope climbs, water hazards and even electric shock!

Sure, it might sound a little intense, but there’s a race out there for everyone. Like road races and triathlon, obstacle races come in varying levels of difficulty. Start by selecting a race that is aligned with your current level of fitness. Spend a few minutes searching online and you’re sure to find a race that is a fun outing for friends and others that are an intense test of physical fitness. While completing your search, and before you register for a race, look for a map of the race course, the types of obstacles you’ll encounter and the level of competition. Once you’ve identified the race for you, and have signed up, it’s time to begin your obstacle race training program.

How do I train?

Now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s take a look at the best way to train for an obstacle race. Total body conditioning and relative strength are going to be a priority.

Phase 1 – Conditioning and Relative Strength

The first few weeks of training should be spent building a foundation of cardiovascular fitness. Running three to five miles without stopping is a good start. Next, speed work, intervals and hill sprints should become part of your training mix. When it comes to strength training begin with body weight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, triceps dips, squats and lunges. Maximum strength, like your one rep max doesn’t matter much during an obstacle. It’s relative strength, or strength-to-weight ratio that will come into play. That’s because you will be expected to move your own body weight up, over, around and through various obstacles. You’re going for lean and mean, not big and bulky.

Phase 2 – Race Specific Skills

With a few weeks of strength and cardio training in the books turn your attention towards developing race specific skills. Exercises like the kettlebell swing, box jumps, rind dips and deadlifts are great options for improving total body strength. You’ll also want to become acquainted with the burpee – or squat thrust. Combining a push-up and a jump squat into one move, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter this exercise during your obstacle race.
Obstacle races are not straight line, steady state cardio efforts. Conversely, they are start and stop intervals that mix periods of running with feats of strength sprinkled in along the way. Given this fact, you should also begin to pair cardio work with strength based exercises. Combining kettlebell swings with sprint intervals is a great way to create hybrid strength and cardio workouts.

Top 10 Obstacle Training Tips

Whether you’re new to obstacle racing or mud run veteran, you should be following an obstacle race training plan to prepare your mind and body for the challenges ahead. And, with phases one and two of your training underway use these 10 tips to get the most out of your race preparations.

1. Strength with cardio – for most, weight-training and cardio exercise are two separate events.  However, since the Spartan Race combines elements of strength and cardio, your workouts should too.  Plan to complete workouts that combine strength based moves with sprints, burpees, or box jumps.

2. Go compound – multi-joint or compound exercises that engage more than one muscle groups at the same time are best for obstacle racers in training.  Replace isolated exercises, which only focus on one muscle group at a time, with compound movements like the squat or deadlift.

3. Train like an athlete – huge biceps look great, but are useless during an obstacle race.  Instead of exercising like a bodybuilder try training like an athlete.  Include plyometrics, kettlebell swings and sprints in your training plan to add intensity and variety to workouts while improving overall fitness.

4. Do more work – Are you planning on taking long water breaks throughout your Tough Mudder or Spartan race?  Then cut out the socializing and chit-chatting at the gym.  Training session should include more work than rest, not the other way around.  Put yourself on the clock, keeping rest between sets under 90 seconds to maximize the amount of work you are doing.

5. Go heavy – lifting heavier weights for less repetitions helps to build strength and shed fat.  Start with a weight that is manageable for 15 reps.  Then, add weight over time to find a weight that is doable for eight to 10 repetitions.  Remember, you’re an athlete not a bodybuilder.  So skip the bench press and do some squats instead.

6. Team up – working out with a partner or group improves performance.  Having a partner to provide encouragement during workouts can help you get the most out of a workout.  And, with someone relying on you to do the same makes you accountable and more likely to show up for workouts.

7. Don’t train, compete – Turn workouts into a competition with yourself or a team.  Push yourself to complete new challenges in the gym by completing a circuit workout as fast as possible, pushing the pace and intensity.

8. More kettlebell – The kettlebell is the ultimate training Tough Mudder training tool.   When completing a kettlebell swing all of the muscles of the lower body, as well as the core and low back, are called into action.  You will also be developing explosive hip drive that will help you go up, over, around or through various obstacles.

9. Get a grip – ready to a climb rope, scale a wall or traverse monkey bars?  You might have the upper body strength, but how is your grip?  Strengthen all of the muscles from your fingertips to your elbows by performing rope climbs, farmers walk, pull-ups and kettlebell swings.

10. HIIT it – as in, High Intensity Interval Training.  Cardio sessions should alternate between periods of maximum effort or intensity with brief periods of recovery at a moderate or low effort.  You can sprint, run hills, or scale stadium stairs.  Start with 30 seconds of work followed by 90 seconds rest for 15 minutes.  Then, build up to 90 seconds of work and 90 seconds of rest for 20 minutes.

Joe Vennare is the co-founder of Hybrid Athlete and co-creator of Race Day Domination, a training manual designed to prepare competitors for success in any obstacle course race,

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Show/Hide Comments (3 comments)
  1. D.l.

    Great article. What will be a great weekly workout to lean out and prepare for an obstacle race? Thanks

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Hi there,

      It really depends on the specific race. If the obstacle race is popular enough, you’ll probably be able to find an online community with a suggested training program. Try to find that.

      – Todd

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